Writing funny

It is sometimes said that you can’t teach someone how to write comedy. I think that’s a bit silly, though — I think it’s more accurate that you can’t teach someone how to write something universally funny, because humor is tied so closely to our hindbrain animal limbic system electrical zoomies that what each of us find funny is deeply personal, tied to our experiences and preferences and whatever the monkey is screaming in the back of our heads.

In other words, you could equally say that you can’t teach someone how to write a universally hot sex scene, or a universally scary horror scene. You can, however, write something you find funny (or hot or scary or all three, go for it, I’m not your boss). And in that case, while you won’t hit everyone’s funny bone, you’ll definitely get somebody — you’re your own proof of concept.

And once you accept that, then– sure, you can be taught how to write comedy. It’s all practice, study, and:

A Few Handy Hacks (for Writing Humor)

1. Having a “straight man” and a “comic”, a’la the traditional double act, actually works. Feel free to switch who’s who as need requires.

2. Having a good rhythm – and strategically breaking that rhythm – is important. Listening to a good stand-up comic’s monologue will demonstrate that, or reading any good comic writer’s work. The rhythm catches the reader, and the break makes them laugh.

3. Having mostly funny stuff and then tossing in a dollop of real-life consequences or angst will make the funny stuff funnier and the real stuff realer.

4. Lead the reader to expect one line of dialogue because of circumstance or internal monologue, and then give them a different (preferably banal or off-topic) one. Bait and switch.

5. I sometimes like to fuck around with punctuation and “um”s and stuff, because I think that’s hilarious, but that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. “What. Um. Yes. I mean. What?” is guaranteed to make me giggle, is what I’m saying.

6. Heighten humorous reality by being a bit more fun with description and action. Don’t just have your character smile at annoying person’s misfortune – have them on the floor beneath the conference room table, gibbering gleefully and throwing in random unhelpful comments. Give them some adverbs. Later, do a call back and have them remove some errant carpet fuzz.

7. Typically, the word “said” is all you really needed to get by in dialogue, when you need a dialogue tag at all. Comic fiction is one of the places where you can get a bit more frisky if you so wish. (Particularly when paired with bait-and-switch, as in, “Basil leaned over and wrapped his arm comfortingly around Ted’s shoulders. He gave a quick squeeze and, in tones of kindest understanding, murmured, ‘You absolute tit.'”)

8. Never underestimate the power of an amusing and unexpected prop, the funnyman’s version of Chekov’s shotgun. Georgette Heyer accomplished great things with a strategically placed baby duck.

9. There’s something really satisfying about a super long sentence followed by a really short one. Or a very long paragraph followed by a very short one. Or a section of any sort of decent length followed by an absolutely minuscule one that consists of nothing but a joke. Somehow that’s just really funny.

10. List humor. Humans just get a real buzz out of lists that get progressively sillier (or even just lists of quite normal things, but extended beyond what could be considered reasonable. Monty Python did a lot of this.) The internet has unfortunately discovered this as well, but it still works. I could get into why, but, unfortunately, I won’t.

(Image credit: Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay)


Spring 2022 Class: “Writing Short Fiction”

I’m stretching my wings, folks, and taking 20+ years of experience writing, editing, and publishing — not to mention three-odd years’ worth of podcast hosting — to the classroom. This spring I’ll be teaching a practical, nuts-and-bolts approach to writing short fiction at Assabet After Dark, the largest adult continuing education program in metrowest Massachusetts.

From the catalogue:

Writing Short Fiction

Short fiction is an easy medium to attempt, a difficult one to master. We will focus on a practical, nuts-and-bolts approach to writing short fiction in multiple genres. You will discover different narrative techniques, tips for effective dialogue, plotting a short story versus plotting a novel, and how to submit your work and where. You will workshop your story one-on-one with the instructor, with the goal of having a completed, ready-to-submit short story by the end of the course.

Assabet After Dark Spring 2022 catalogue

It’s six classes, one a week in 2-hour blocks every Tuesday from March 8 to April 12. The only cost is the course fee, which I haggled down to $85 to keep the cost of entry low for those who might otherwise not be able to afford writing classes. Representative demos of my approach to writing (both the art and the commerce thereof) can be found on my blog post about How to Sell Your Fiction, my appearances at conferences, or my co-hosting gig on the No Story Is Sacred podcast.

But! I recognize that not everybody is in or around Massachusetts, or would feel comfortable with in-person teaching right now. (VERY fair.) So here’s the skinny — I’m offering two options to people who want to be part of this, regardless of where you are in the world.

  • Option 1 – In Person: This is an open class (though spaces are limited — ETA 2/11/22: And is now using a waitlist!). If you’re in Massachusetts and want to make the drive, you can register to attend the “live” course, whether that ends up being in person or over Zoom. Registering for the in-person course gets you access to:
    • 12 hours of dedicated live teaching
    • One-on-one short-story workshopping and support with me
    • A course site with resources and copies of the presentations for later review
    • Access to a dedicated Discord server to talk over assignments, ping me and others for help, and generally build a writing community for those who may not have had one previously
  • Option 2 – Online-Only: For those who still want to be part of a community and learn along with others in an online setting, I’m creating a special role in this class’s Discord server called “Virtual Student”. You’d be locked out of the in-person class channels, but everything else will be open for you, including:
    • Single-shot talks
    • Workshop-versions of future classes
    • Crowd-sourced resources, open submission calls, and general support

And that’s it! This is a new direction for me, but one I’m very excited about.

ETA: 12/6/22: Online-only server access closed for now! Check in again in the spring of 2023 for another opening~

Have an idea for classes or talks you’d like to see, or other topics you’d like me to address? Drop me a line and I’ll add it to the list!

(Image credit: Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay)


How to sell your fiction

…and other sentences that are easier to say than they are to accomplish. But on the other hand: it’s also not hard to sell your fiction, not in this golden age1 of short fiction publishing. At the end of the day, there are a lot of places that can publish your fiction… depending on what kind of market you’re willing to let publish you.

1 Nota bene: I say “golden age,” but the markets themselves might disagree.

Pick What You Value Before You Start

What do you really want to accomplish with your fiction? Figure that out now — here are a few potential options:

  1. Get paid at a professional rate
  2. Get paid anything
  3. Appear in prestigious markets
  4. Get a publishing credit
  5. Have people read my work2

If all you want is to have people read your work? My friend, there are plenty of places to post for free, such as Wattpad and Archive of Our Own. You can even self-publish fairly easily and likewise for free through a variety of distributors like Lulu, Smashwords, or Amazon. If all you want is to reach the masses, the masses are out there waiting for you.

Likewise, if you want just a writing credit, any credit at all, from someone other than yourself– there are markets out there that can’t afford to pay their writers but are hungry for content.3 If it seems scary to approach the big-name mags, or if you’re trying to get into the swing of writing and submitting fiction regularly, these can be good places to send your work. You might even get on the ground floor of an up-and-coming wunderkind, or at the very least a place that promotes you well and is great to work with.

Now, me, I value getting paid at a professional rate, followed by appearing in prestigious markets, followed by getting paid anything. That means that for me, I’m likely to prioritize sending my finished fiction out to the big-name magazines first, though I keep an eye on the smaller zines that don’t pay particularly well (or at all), but which have a strong editorial eye and are well-respected by the field.4 If I can’t make it to one of the big-names, or a well-paying anthology, then I trunk the story for later — but that’s because I know what I value. Figure out what you value, and you’ll have a game plan for the next steps.

2 You’ll note that none of those are “become hugely famous” — that’s not a goal that you can predict or easily reach. The others are.

3 But beware the markets that can’t afford to pay you but instead require that you pay them, as well as ones that request you sign predatory contracts. Some good reading on this topic: John Scalzi’s post “Yog’s Law and Self-Publishing,” and SFWA’s entire Contracts information page.

4 How can you tell if a smaller zine is worth watching? Check where “best of the year” stories are coming from, as well as ones that are nominated for awards. You might find markets that don’t pay but that are clearly worth shooting for.

Get Thee a Spreadsheet

I recognize that this makes me a pencil-pushing square, but– a spreadsheet keeps you sane and keeps you focused on your fiction instead of your submission queue. The more ways you can delegate or automate the business side of creative work? THE BETTER.5

Here’s a dead simple spreadsheet to get you started — first, open up your favorite spreadsheet program or pull out your Grandpa’s accounting ledger, and label the columns of the top row like so:

  • Title of your story
  • Name of market
  • Date you sent it out
  • Date you heard back
  • Notes

Make the assumption now that you will definitely get rejected from the majority of places you send each story out to. Keep track of the dates, and the peculiarities of each market. Do they say not to contact them until six months have passed? Put a note to yourself in the note column about that, and schedule a reminder with your favorite reminder thingy. Did they reject you, but with a really nice note — or better, with editorial suggestions? Put that in the note section!6

Every bit of information is useful. Or it can be, once you separate the business side of fiction from the creative side. And if nothing else, it creates a kind of diary of your publishing career… and a handy way of making sure you don’t submit the same story to the same market by accident.

5 The entirety of this section should come with a huge “this works for me, but not necessarily for you!” warning. Not everyone would benefit from a spreadsheet. But if you’ve never tried a spreadsheet, hey– here’s how to do it. Might be something useful for your toolbox.

6 Can also be used for the dark art of rejectomancy. That, however, is a separate blog post.

Cultivate Your Market List

When you think of potential places to send your fiction, you may well have a short list of markets already in your head, and you submit to them first. I know I do– and for me, before I started really knuckling down and using my spreadsheets, I’d go through three or four markets… and then run out, because I couldn’t think of anywhere else to send my story.

So get fancy with your spreadsheet (or whatever your administrative tool of choice), and just write down markets as you come across them. Collect the links to the guidelines or submission portals. If you want to get really inventive, take notes on any special requirements they have– or any kinds of fiction the editor has mentioned they want to see.7 It’ll come in useful when it’s time to find a market to submit to, and you won’t have to clutter up your brain trying to remember all these little tidbits of info.

7 As a note: don’t drive yourself bananas to find this additional info. It’s more like… if you happen to follow them on twitter, and they say something, make a note and move on.

…And Your Market Listings

A lot of people know about market listing sites8 like Submission Grinder and Duotrope — places that do the job of keeping track of the available markets for you.

Market listings are amazing. They tell you who’s accepting fiction, who’s closed, what length they want, how much they pay– the works. Some of them even have a tracking system you can use to obviate the need for your own records.

But there is no One True King when it comes to market listings — there isn’t one that’s going to list everywhere you might be able to send your fiction. So if you’re one of those people who wants to spread their net wide, or if you write in a very broad range of genres, get out your trusty spreadsheet and start collecting links to those too. The OG SFF list? Small press listings? Throw Poet & Writers list and New Pages in there. Want some more romance and erotica options? It looks like my link to the list from The Review Review is broken, so hey, I’ll update that and meanwhile pass you this blog post with 40 romance publishers from Book Fox.

Much like your collection of markets, these listings may be old, out-of-date, or defunct when you come back to them later — but when you’re really hurting for a market to send your story to, there might be something lurking in one of these lists that’s exactly the right fit for you.

8 And if you don’t? Congratulations, you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000!

How to Sell Your Fiction? Submit Your Fiction

As corporate motivational speakers like to say: You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. And in this case, you get rejected from 100% of the markets you don’t submit to.

Write your story. Edit your story. And then, when it’s done– submit your story. Start working on the next one. When the first one comes back, make a note and then send it out the door again.9 Make yourself a little carousel of story submissions and keep them spinning.

And here, to give you a head start: I’ve put a template version of my personal spreadsheets up for pay-what-you-want10 on Gumroad:

This thing’s got multiple tabs for all sorts of information sorting, with ~humorous examples~ thrown in to demonstrate how to use them, and two tabs containing my real list of markets and market listings. I can’t promise they’re all still up to date, but at least it’ll give you a starting point.

At the end of the day: It’s pretty easy to sell your fiction, if that’s your absolute goal. Be organized, be persistent, and be willing to take rejection like a champ. And, of course: keep writing.

9 This advice has been given many times in the past, but it hit home for me with Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.

10 No really, this is pay-whatever — if you can’t afford a buck, just go ahead and download it. The reward for me is another potential writer out in the world, successfully putting their words in front of my eyeballs.

(Image credit: Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay)


a little bit goes a long way

I’m in the middle of outlining a romance novel that has a lot of potential endings — and several of those possible ending are polyamorous in nature. It’s making me realize one of the weird ways fiction doesn’t necessarily mirror reality.

Romance fiction tends to be, largely, monosexual — one person meets one person, they fall in love, happily ever after (HEA). On some rare occasions, though — and this appears in both original romance novels and in romantic fanfiction — you get a polyamorous solution to everyone’s will-they-won’t-they.

When an author chooses the polyamorous option, they’re trying to demonstrate how it works for an audience that may not necessarily have any experience of it in real life. And in fiction, it looks great. There’s support, there’s a lot of love, there’s frequently really inventive sex scenes. Two things I’ve noticed, though:

  • The kind of poly that tends to show up as the HEA is polyfidelity, or maybe “kitchen-table poly“. In polyfidelity, everyone’s in a relationship with everyone else, like a closed triangle (or whatever shape the polycule is). In kitchen-table poly, everyone might not be in a relationship with everyone else, but they’re all involved in one another’s lives to the degree that they could sit around the kitchen table in their pajamas.
  • You don’t see a lot of parallel or solo poly — at least, not being practiced by the main character. In parallel poly, multiple relationships are being maintained separately; in solo, the poly person maintains multiple relationships but is “settling down” with no one person in particular.

I don’t think kitchen-table or polyfidelity or any of those big group styles of poly are the default of poly — and I don’t think they’re necessarily better than parallel or solo poly, just because we see it in fiction more often. Rather, I think that it’s difficult to write parallel or solo poly sympathetically, in the manner that we’re used to writing about mono relationships.

Writing (for me) is all about having a toolbox of ideas and hacks and methods to convey particular ideas, tools that allow me to translate the messy story in my head to something that looks relatively similar in a complete stranger’s head. If I try to convey one character’s love and desire for multiple other characters, and those characters are all separate or otherwise don’t interact… that sort of writing exists, but generally it’s used to denote a cheater. Even if the author explicitly states that that’s not the case, the author has to contend with their reading audience’s years’ worth of experience decoding and interpreting monosexual fiction — and their own experience writing it. It’s just… easier to write polyamory as if it’s just very complex monogamy.

The truth is, though, that it’s a different bird. And that can land some readers in trouble, particularly those who use fiction to game-test ideas in a sandbox before playing them in the real world. If they’re presented with a type of relationship that looks like it solves their own problems, and then don’t do any research outside of fiction… well, let us consider the example of 50 Shades of Grey and BDSM, and move on from there.

So in working on the ending to my romance, I’m stuck trying to come up with the HEA while at the same time maintaining what I’d like to think is reality for a large subset of the polyamorous community (and shouldn’t they get to see themselves in fiction too?). It’s frustrating work — but, I suppose, that’s why authors do it. Maybe I’ll be the one to crack the code.


the writing life (and the lies we wish were true)

I’ve recently joined one of those movie theatre loyalty programs, where you get to watch multiple movies over the course of a week for the cost of essentially two movies a month (which I would do anyway, so this works well for me). Because of it, I end up seeing a lot of films I wouldn’t otherwise, which is useful to expand my basic collection of storylines.

Recently I saw both Knives Out (a cozy murder mystery comedy with attractive sweaters) and Ford v Ferrari (a historical bio-pic Fast and Furious with more engineering porn). I enjoyed both very much, though only Knives Out had really been on my radar. But getting the opportunity to see both let me make some connections I don’t think I would’ve otherwise– specifically, how the two movies frame owning one’s own business.

Without going into spoilers, Knives Out features the patriarch of a family that has become vastly wealthy because he is a best-selling mystery writer. His millions allow for a giant weird mansion and supporting two generations of wastrel children — all without (SOMEHOW) film, audio, or any other adaptations of his work. This is a depressingly popular trope — when I was a kid, I used to think very dark thoughts about anything that depicted writers as effete artists wandering around sipping martinis in their Manhattan penthouses while lushly dropping marabou feathers from under layer after layer of silk robes.

“Maryanne!” they’d faintly screech, staring at the distance, cradling their own elbow while sipping an artisanally cheap whiskey. “Fetch the typewriter.” They’d take a drag from their cigarette. (There’s a cigarette now.) “And call Mr. Spielberg.” Exhale. “I’m ready to talk.”


In contrast, Ford v Ferrari features not one but two small car-related businesses — one of which is even fairly successful, all things considered — and both are constantly cutting corners with sales, flirting with bankruptcy, and willing to put up with a considerable amount of bullshit to make ends meet. This I’m familiar with– talk to any working writer (or read Kameron Hurley’s breakdowns of what a successful writing life actually pays, or listen to piles of excellent Ditch Digger podcast episodes) and it’s basically the same scenario. There are very few (very few) authors who can survive without a regular day job and/or a support network that subsidizes their work. There are several terrible true-life stories of authors who try to have the marabou feather life and discover that it is wildly impossible.

And yet, Knives Out showcases that trope again, and the regular public nod sagely and take it as a given.

The closest I’ve come to figuring out the difference here is a double-punch of:

(1) Writing is still a Vast Mystery, unlike blue-collar and mundane car repair businesses. There are a sufficient number of people who either know or are blue-collar workers that it’s not a real question how and where money goes. Cash and accrual businesses, with hourly/shift work, are basically the options at play — as opposed to the labyrinthine nonsense of incremental portions of leased rights across multiple companies and languages, etc etc, that makes up a typical writing career.

(2) Writing produces Art, which is a luxury, and luxuries cost money, and therefore… artists are rich? (This goes back to the Mystery aspect of how money works in publishing.) Whereas cars are, for many, a basic life necessity. Someone’s getting rich, but it’s probably Companies run by rotund men in glass-windowed offices, laughing over stock reports while burning Kobe steaks to light their bespoke cigarillos. In fact, it would seem that the popular trope of the martini-drinking artist frames writers as essentially being on par with capitalist fat cats.

I don’t have a particular solution to this, aside from more writers accurately portraying themselves in fiction (which is also my solution for accurate robots, accurate children, and accurate dark gods of New Hampshire). But it’s still very fascinating to see the exact same lifestyle appear at the exact same time in the exact same media– and have those expressed in their stories and to their audiences completely differently.


mirabilis in miniature

The first story my parents remember me writing (or starting, at any rate) was titled THE STORM. Its opening line? “It was a beautiful day at the beach.”

The first story I remember writing was in first or second grade, shortly after I’d had a teary tantrum over something, and I proceeded to write a story about a crying witch. My parents lent me their computer to do so, which was magnanimous considering the fuss I remember putting up just shortly beforehand. I can still remember the final scene, though — I don’t remember how I wrote it, but I remember imagining what I wanted, and the urge to get it down right.

I myself have children now, and they’ll sidle up next to me and ask if they can “work” on my laptop, writing their own stories. My youngest gets frustrated at how slow her typing is, but when she dictates to me, her story about the Power Sisters joining the Teen Titans is a charming and imaginative one.

My oldest, on the other hand, has crept from her bed at night and said, wide-eyed and excited, that she has a story she wants to write. On the one hand, I could send her back to bed– but I know what it’s like to feel the urge to create, and the sweeping joy of a finished work. So the night that this happened, I handed over my laptop, and let her peck out letters of a ghost story, one hand to her mouth as she smiled, delighted, at her own words.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except– it can be rare, I think, to watch someone else’s muse strike, and watch their brains light up and their voice get excited and their hands move in rhythm to their minds. We should encourage it when it happens, and be respectful of the tiny miracle we’ve been allowed to witness.


Writing without engagement (or: livejournal was really great, right?)

For the last several years, I’ve engaged in micro-blogging: Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr. All of these create an “active” online presence that doesn’t have to actually create anything new (though many do) — one can instead just like, or reblog, or provide a two-word comment, and be considered alive and well.

The other day I went trawling through my old and now very much defunct livejournal, looking for a particular essay I’d written describing the lead up to the “Sicilian Vespers“. And what with one thing and another, I ended up rereading huge swathes of posts, going back years. It was… strange. I had posts about my daily life; posts about my thoughts and feelings; posts with bad jokes; posts where I excitedly shared something I’d learned, or commented on the happenings of the world, or just trolled my friends at length. It was a very different sort of engagement than I have with my current apps and platforms — instead of sharing what’s clever, or attempting to dip into meme status, I just… wrote what I wanted to write. A diary with an acknowledged open audience.

So I might just go ahead and start writing like that again– because why not? It’ll either be read or it won’t, but I will have written it, and I will be able to read it in the future, and shouldn’t that be enough? The act of writing is an exponential exercise — every word becomes ten more at some near-distant point. And even if it didn’t… there’s value in writing for oneself. Of looking inside and writing what one sees without first transmogrifying it into fiction. Of writing something meant to be experienced separate from the “engagement” of social media.

(And also I want another venue to talk about the Sicilian Vespers without having to count my characters or use shitpost styling to go viral. It’s a wild bit of history. Fuck ~engaging~ my audience.)